Against the machine: Our creepy techno fetish

by Beacon Staff • April 23, 2008

I've mulled this graying exhortation a lot lately, marveling at how archaic it has become. A hybrid of two vaguely related impulses-hippie back-to-basics and Luddite technophobia-the plea now seems so dated that it might as well read, "Kill Your Horseless Carriage.,There's this old slogan that you can still spot on wrinkled t-shirts and the backs of beat-up cars. "Kill Your Television," it reads.

I've mulled this graying exhortation a lot lately, marveling at how archaic it has become. A hybrid of two vaguely related impulses-hippie back-to-basics and Luddite technophobia-the plea now seems so dated that it might as well read, "Kill Your Horseless Carriage."

The slogan wasn't always so irrelevant. During television's heyday, when it was cutting-edge technology, the box provided quite a target for simpler folks who feared it would desensitize the spirit, distract the mind and disfigure the old pace of life.

These days, however, "Kill Your Television" must prompt less vitriol among backwards-looking people. After all, the charges against T.V. are that it cheapens, corrodes and produces an artificial sense of togetherness. Yet compared to mass Internet, easy mobile communication and the virtual social networking craze they have spawned, a little basic cable seems innocent on all counts.

Older people may have ducked these technological advances, but our generation stares them in the face. It's the stuff of our youth.

We grew up in a whirlwind of text messages, custom cell phone rings, wall posts and e-mails; we've matured in a dizzying blitz of Web surfing, IM back-and-forths, viral videos and Web memes.

There's been, for the past 10 years, a nonstop storm of information and communication.

Recently, in particular, daily existence has been at once shrunken and accelerated. Everything and everyone is a click or scroll away, accessed with minimal energy and maximum speed.

Haven't heard that song-download it. Haven't seen that episode-grab it on iTunes. Haven't watched that "hilarious" homemade video-troll YouTube.

And check DrudgeReport, too. Check Digg. Check PerezHilton and Gawker. Check your friend's blog (it's boring, but there's no friendship without duty).

Send an instant message. Update your away status. "Friend" the kid you met last weekend.

Any e-mails to be read? Any widgets to be tested? If you get bored, there's always the ex's thousand Facebook photos (they haven't changed, but perhaps you have).

Click, scroll, click. Easy as that. Quick as that.

What's funny is that the more "information" you gobble up, the more hungry you become. Somehow, the more you figure out, the less you're certain of, or satisfied with, anything.

Rod Dreher, a religious commentator and journalist, wrote recently, "[It's an] interesting Information Age paradox: the more information an individual takes in, the less he knows. That is, he doesn't appreciate the difference between information and knowledge."

His observations spring from a reading of The Black Swan, by scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb suggests that constant evaluation of goings-on cause us to imbibe "toxic information," which has not been "properly processed, weighed, measured and placed in context."

He explains, "The more detailed knowledge one gets of empirical reality, the more one will see noise and mistake it for actual information."

It's a regular feeding frenzy, basically, on the personal and societal levels and everywhere in between. But we're feeding, you see, on rot.

A thirst for communication, knowledge and novelty is great-and new finds have always meant new questions-but sacrificing authentic inquiry and genuine conversation to gorge on anything that makes us take momentary pause is rather self-defeating. Chasing the data dragon is a downward spiral.

Today, I find myself in a ceaseless, sleepless world, bombarded by random things, by noises and images so petty and ephemeral that they lack even the constitutions to grow old. They simply appear and disappear; they are looked at and forgotten, replaced by new noises and images.

This has always been the case, of course, but the churn-over is presently sped up to a point where it's hard pressed to lay roots or establish a sensible view of what's truly real and really true.

More and more often, it seems "killing our televisions" might not be nearly enough. Imagine killing our computers ("But how would we learn?"), our iPods ("But how would we endure the gym?"), our cell phones ("But how would we talk?").

Imagine forgetting every URL, every screen name, every channel listing, every e-mail address. Imagine no rings, no updates, no backlog of voice or e-mails, no favorites list, no soft hum of the internal processor. Imagine just-slowing down.

Would life be very empty then, or very free?